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Putting out fires / March 20, 2019
With all the talk lately about solar power and the Lady Bug project in Bracey, it’s easy to overlook other trends in the energy business — including ones directly affecting those of us here in Southside Virginia.

Back in the fall, I stumbled onto a rather eye-oepning story: It was published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, one of my regular go-tos for a little light leisure reading. (Ha ha. I found the piece when it popped up in a Google search that I’ll get to in a moment.) The IEEFA promotes a mission of “accelerating the transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy,” a decidedly greenish point of view by the sounds of it, yet by all appearances the organization does solid research and analytical work. That’s certainly true of the article that grabbed my attention.

I went looking for news about coal-fired generation plants in the area; what my internet search turned up was an piece titled, “Two of Duke Energy’s plants in North Carolina reflect national trend in baseload slippage for coal.” If you can get past the wonky headline, the upshot of the article is striking: It basically lays out the reasons why Duke Energy is very likely to close two of the region’s biggest coal-fired plants, both located in nearby Person County, N.C., sooner than most people expect. “Coal is losing its foothold as a baseload power resource,” the article notes. “This shift is occurring nationally, but what’s happening in North Carolina is a good snapshot of the larger decline in coal’s importance to electric utilities.”

The term “baseload” refers to power sources that are constant and reliable, and the issue of baseload generation is a hot one in the industry with the upheaval to the utility business model created by the rise of solar and wind, which for all intents and purposes are intermittent sources of power (at least until battery storage becomes better and more ubiquitous). Wind and solar are getting so cheap that they threaten to drive traditional baseload fuel sources out of business, and nowhere is this more true than with coal.

Smoothing out the energy mix so ample electricity is readily available, while at the same time we welcome intermittent solar and wind and phase out dirty incumbents like coal, is a complicated matter that has led some people, including prominent environmentalists, to champion a possible alternative with profound implications for Southside: low-emission nuclear energy, which for all its complications does offer a reliable alternative to coal and natural gas. The demand this would create for uranium mining in Southside Virginia is a subject for a different day, however, so let’s get back to the fate of Duke’s coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

The two in question are the Mayo Plant, which lies just north of Roxboro, and the Roxboro Plant, in western Person County, near Semora. (Why the latter is named the Roxboro plant when it is located further away from Roxboro, N.C. than the Mayo Plant is one of those corporate mysteries I suppose will never be unraveled.) The Mayo Plant is a 727-megawatt station that rises in plain sight of U.S. 501 between South Boston and Roxboro; it opened in 1983 and spewed coal pollution through its tall smokestack for decades before Progress Energy Carolinas finally installed scrubbing equipment in the 2000s. The Roxboro plant is a beast: four units with total generating capacity of 2,439 MW, making it one of the largest coal plants in the U.S. (It also went years without the advanced pollution control seen in more modern facilities.)

Not to be all conspiratorial here, but it is a widely-held belief that Southside Virginia suffers from inordinately high levels of cancer and other diseases that have an environmental dimension. I’d like to see some actual research on this question before taking a hard position on this question, but it can confidently be said that these coal plants, particularly in their early years, belched truly worrisome amounts of mercury, selenium, arsenic and other heavy metals into the air and water. If that fact isn’t enough to open people’s eyes to the attractiveness of alternative energy, I don’t know what else could do the trick.

The two nearby Duke Energy plants have long served as backbone sources of electricity for North Carolina customers. But as the IEEFA article explains, that status has basically come to an end as the plants operate at a fraction of their capacity. The smaller Mayo Plant went from running at 69.5 percent capacity in the prior decade (2000-2010) to only 21.8 percent in 2017, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. The capacity factor at the four-unit Roxboro plant fell from 67.3 percent in the prior decade to 29 percent in 2017. Six months of the year, Roxboro ran at less than 20 percent of its capacity.

“Clearly, neither of the plants can be considered baseload units anymore,” according to the IEEFA, which observes that usage at the two plants spikes “only during the hottest days of summer and the coldest days in the winter.” In fact, Duke has changed the status of both Mayo and Roxboro from their prior designation as baseload facilities to that of intermediate load resources. “The bigger question is how long these newly classified plants will continue to be economic for Duke to keep online,” the article notes.

(By the way, if you want a sense of coal’s future, consider this: “Another indicator of the growing obsolescence of both plants can be seen in coal deliveries. In 2010, Roxboro had 5.92 million tons of coal delivered; in 2017 that figure was 2.43 million tons. In 2010, Mayo had 1.71 million tons of coal delivered; in 2017 it was down to 545,000 tons. Coal for both plants comes from mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.”)

Duke Energy currently plans to retire the Roxboro Plant in 2028, and the official date for closing the Mayo Plant is 2035 — deadlines that keep getting pushed up by the private utility company, the nation’s largest. Mayo apparently is especially expensive and inefficient to operate, which is pretty much the reason Dominion closed its coal-fired station in Clarksville a year ago. Both Mayo and Roxboro produce power that costs more than the $34.50 per megawatt-hour norm for the region —“meaning that on an average day neither plant may be called upon for electricity.”

Meantime, from 2011 to 2017, North Carolina developed a supply of solar power roughly equivalent to building two Roxboxo Plants (4,243 megawatts of solar), with plans on the drawing board to double that amount by 2022. Duke is also promising to install 300MW of battery storage in North and South Carolina over the next 15 years.

The upshot is hard to miss: whatever Duke says about keeping its coal plants open for many years to come, the timeline for coal energy shortens by the day. “While Duke has said it will end its use of coal generation in the Carolinas, it hasn’t been very ambitious about when full phaseout will actually occur. However, the data show clearly that transition is coming faster than almost anyone thought it would.”

Could be tomorrow for all we know.

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